Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tragedy in Norway, and the tinge of Islamophobia lurking behind it

#Islamophobia. I've mentioned it briefly in past posts, but here's another (brief) thought:

Following the bombing in Oslo and tragic massacre at a nearby youth camp, you'll find that initial speculations blaming Muslim extremists spread quickly, in one case even mistakenly reporting that one had claimed responsibility. For instance, the last thing I read on the matter before hitting the hay last night was this WaPo article, eyeing up a Kurdish group as potentially responsible. Both then and now, my mind is occupied by two thoughts: 1.serious horror and sadness that anyone would do such a thing, and 2.concern and disappointment both the possibility that it could have been a Muslim group, and b.(as of this morning) that such Islamophobic tendencies came out in the face of the fact that the suspect is, ironically, an extreme right-wing Norwegian native, and apparently is himself Islamophobic.

"Irony" really isn't a strong enough word here, nor does it portray the tragedy of the entire situation, but it's all I've got at the moment. 

There are a few things people are likely to think of in connection to Scandinavia (and this is a conversation that has come up several times since my arrival in Denmark): Hans Christian Andersen, Kierkegaard, Vikings, lots of fish, socialist tendencies, well developed, cold, Mohammed cartoon fiasco. Several years afterthefact, a discussion on that last factor can still turn into a serious debate, even amongst Danes. Naturally, it's impossible - and grossly unfair - to stereotype an entire culture... and when I say that, I refer both to Scandinavian cultures and to followers of Islam and Arabic cultures. 

The sad fact remains, however, that Islamophobia is a global issue, and has become particularly pronounced in the rather homogeneous societies of Scandinavia. In Denmark, for instance, if you're not Danish, you're likely to be either Middle Eastern or Eastern European. Either way, your reputation will proceed you, like it or not, and it will not be a positive portrayal. Your nationality, ethnicity, and/or religion will suggest you an extremist, a cheat, a liar, a thief, and generally a source of increased violence and crime rates in an otherwise peaceful and organized society. Often, to be perfectly honest, these stereotypes can be heard from highly intelligent, liberal-minded natives as well, with the disclaimer that it is not all but most or many, and the point that statistics tend to support such claims, to a certain extent. Still, this cannot possibly validate these negative stereotypes in my mind, and any new instance or statistic that seems to support it is that much more upsetting for the very fact that it encourages such negative responses.

...So now it seems that the horrifying acts originally suspected to be carried out by Muslim extremists were, in fact, carried out by an Islamophobic native Norwegian. Tragic and concerning in so many ways.

Thoughts are with Denmark's northern neighbors and the friends and families of the all-too-young victims.

**Note: This post was written before the surfacing of apparent motives and posts (Islamophobia, cultural suprematism, etc). "Tinge" of Islamophobia is clearly a gross understatement.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Two travelers, four days, and numerous adventures

My last post left you at the arrivals gate of the Copenhagen airport so, as you might imagine, this post will be almost entirely occupied with the adventures of a pair of young American women in Denmark for a long weekend. In my defense, it's holiday season here- everyone disappears to summer houses (in this country or another) or elsewhere for 2-3 weeks, including several of my coworkers, so I took off most of Monday and Tuesday to join Jenny for our Danish adventures. 
[Plug: Though this post thus does not include news of my internship at Sensus, must keep in mind that my grant from Dickinson, which covered my travel expenses and a fair bit of living expenses while here, still made this little vaca. possible by getting me here.]

Back to adventures with Jenny, whose mini vaca. was wedged between 4 weeks of archaeology field work in Tuscany and her return to the US and our hometown in good ol' northwestern Penna.. Really, though, it can be quickly summarized: I retrieved her form the airport on Saturday and we made a vague plan for the next few days, our train rides often spent with her reading my Lonely Planet guidebooks (for both Denmark and Copenhagen) and me reading David Grossman. Weather forecast suggested Tuesday as the nicest day and thus best for exploring Copenhagen, so Sunday was designated for Roskilde and the Viking Ship Museum, then Monday for Helsingør, Kronborg Castle, and taking the ferry over to Helsingborg for a few hours. The plan worked out surprisingly well, especially given our similar trends towards travel misadventures, and we spent Tuesday night at a hostel in downtown CPH so as to get her to the airport on time for an 8:30am flight out on Wednesday.

A few highlights: Jenny temporarily discarding her "no eating organs" rule in order to try the ever-popular "liverpostei" on smørrebrød but making up for it in generous quantities of pastries, flødebolle, Toblerone, gelato, etc. Being approached by two Afghani men (who first guessed us to be British which we, admittedly, took as a compliment) while we talked and laughed our way through another train ride, and the next day approached by a drunk older Danish man who Jenny scared off with what we dubbed her "Eastern European look." Wandering Hamlet's beach outside of Kronborg Castle, watching fishermen and enjoying the sea breeze while Jenny indulged her geologist tendencies and combed the rocks. And, ultimately, exchanging our gelato and canal-side seats in Nyhavn for a table outside a bar near the hostel, where we followed the Danish tradition of lackadaisically sitting around and chatting with a drink in hand.

Now that Jenny has safely returned to the shores of Lake Erie, you find me enjoying a bottle of quality Tuscan wine, a parting gift from my weekend travel buddy, and finishing up Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express before returning to Grossman's latest, To the End of the Land. [My tactic: always carry something to read, but when possible have various options for various moods. Both are fantastic.] In Patagonia and nearing the end of his travels, Theroux writes, 
"If one of the objects of travel was to give yourself the explorer's thrill that you were alone, that after fifteen or twenty thousand miles you had outrun everyone else and were embarked on a solitary mission of discovery in a remote place, then I had accomplished the traveler's dream. ... Alone, alone: it was like proof of my success. I had had to travel very far to arrive at this solitary condition."
As I read this, I looked around my otherwise empty room and chuckled to myself. I haven't traveled to Argentina (yet), but plenty of things have been discovered in the world - large and small, tangible and intangible - without necessitating a trip into Patagonia, as I know Theroux would agree. 

Just over two weeks to go in Denmark, then off to Berlin and Munich for eight days, then back to the US. We shall see what happens next, eh?
*For a more complete album of Denmark adventures thus far, feel free to check here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Not in the guide book

Headed into Copenhagen this afternoon to retrieve Jenny, a fellow Pennsylvanian visiting for a few days before her return to the US after a month in Italy. Thought for the day: guide books are unlikely to direct you to two of the spots I have greatly enjoyed in Copenhagen - 

1.Sitting on the steps in front of the central train station, preferably while enjoying something from a falafel/kebab stand or a pastry from the bakery across the street. (Bonus: next to the bakery is an entrance to Tivoli, which means that much more people watching)

2.The arrivals gate in the CPH airport- it's impossible to spend any amount of time there and not smile (kind of like the last seen in "Love Actually," but without Hugh Grant). ...just watch out for that hoard of Chinese tourists posing behind a banner and wearing identical baby blue "Visit Sweden" jackets.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

"Elsinore," Sweden, and impossible dinner etiquette

What I haven't already shared from the week (though chatting with my new Kurdish friend and getting a tweet from Colson Whitehead were serious highlights): how I've been spending my days in the office, and birthday adventures to Kronborg Slot and Helsingborg, Sweden... and eating a hamburger with a knife and fork, which was mind-blowing for this barbaric, eat-with-your-hands, low maintenance style American.

As I've briefly mentioned in past posts, I've largely been working on planning Lars' upcoming trip to Egypt, where Sensus currently has a project to expand RoboBraille services for Arabic speakers and create more snazzy tech features like transferring SMS messages into audio files via mobile phones. Impressive, no? Particularly if you're blind, visually impaired, dyslexic, or illiterate. Two folks from Sensus have spent this past week training and working with the partner company in Cairo, while I struggle to actually make contact with people and organizations of potential interest... not that I can blame the vast majority of Egyptians for being rather distracted at this point in their political history. Still, it's an unfortunate reminder to the much more timely Danes that there exist highly noticeable cultural differences - and it's not helping the general Danish opinion regarding people of Arab and/or Middle Eastern decent, frankly. (So one might see how my free kebab yesterday was that much more abnormal in a Danish context. heh) ...aside from that, wrote a short synopsis of "Sommerskolen" for the RoboBraille newsletter, doing various research things, and working on my Fulbright grant proposal during any down time.

Rewinding a bit to Tuesday, I was reminded of the awesomeness of my coworkers when I walked into the office to find two presents waiting at my desk and announcement from two of the guys that they had breakfast waiting- what is known in the US as "danishes," but of course here have their own Danish names, like wienerbrød and kanelstang. The presents, fittingly, turned out to be a Scandinavian cookbook and The Complete Illustrated Works of Hans Christian Andersen. Lars and I later left the office I tad early, joined by his son Rasmus, to head out to Helsingør (thus "Elsinore") and wander around outside the famed home of Hamlet (sadly, no ghost spottings) before hopping the ferry to Helsingborg, Sweden, where we walked a few streets before ferrying back to meet with Lars' wife, Annemette.

I do have to add in a few peculiarities here. For instance, the 15-20 minute ferry ride between Helsingør and Helsingborg: my first reaction was an odd comparison to an airport terminal, inspiring me to ask Lars once again if the ride was really just 15 minutes long. Yep. ...So why all the stores and people stocking up on food, etc? I don't know about you, but I don't need a case of beer, several bags of candy, and loads of cigarettes for a 15 minute ride. This thought was fleeting, however, when the airport comparison hit me again: duty free. Duh. Even more entertaining was the announcement mid-trip: apparently you can only purchase tobacco on one side of the "border," and alcohol on the other, so time your purchase accordingly! To say the least, it's amazing how much people can accomplish when efficiently shopping in a 15 minute time span. ...In any case, I suppose it's an odd, modernized continuation of the revenue that straight has seen consistently - after all, the Danish crown once ruled both sides of the straight (thus you'll find fortress-like castles on both sides, one being Kronborg), allowing them to police and tax it should they so choose. [Second picture here is the entrance to the now-Swedish counterpart, as seen from the street below.]

Back in Denmark after a short walk around central Helsingborg, we met up with Annemette and returned to Hillerød to meet with the remaining two of Lars' family, Karolina and Søren, for dinner at Cafe København. Burgers came the most highly recommended, so I took them up on their suggestion though feeling slightly guilty about the seemingly American dinner... until the heaping creation arrived in front of me and I had no choice but to join them in eating a burger and fries with a knife and fork- and laughing at myself all the way through it. Still haven't mastered the ability to eat while holding my knife; it is my constant battle. ahem.

Friday, July 15, 2011

From the "twitterverse": Colson Whitehead!

This day just keeps getting better- Colson Whitehead just tweeted at me! Colson Whitehead! For those not familiar with his understated brilliance and wit, do look him up, then read some of his stuff (and/or follow him on Twitter). I heard him do a brief reading at a conference in DC, then had the pleasure of hearing him speak when he visited Dickinson College and am now the proud owner of an autographed copy of Sag Harbor, which followed me to Denmark. I was reminded of my approval of him when he tweeted something typically quotable/intelligent (not that those two things always go hand-in-hand, but they usually do with his sort), and then this happened:

kate_musgrave: continuously reminded of how much I love @colsonwhitehead. should've been the man behind the curtain- better than oz.2:12pm, Jul 14 from HootSuite

One of the great things about Twitter: moments like this. This may seem slightly silly to some, but I'm ok with that. Right up there with getting a direct message from Sloane Crosley after I'd tweeted about one of her books or, in a less intellectual fashion, a message from Vivek Oberoi when I randomly commented on his assessment of Ghana's last game in the World Cup. So excellent. Between this and the free kebab from my new Kurdish friend, this is has been quite the successful day. :)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Three cheers for Kurdistan

It's completely possible that pretty much everyone driving through Hillerød somewhere between 4:30 and 5pm today thinks I'm slightly crazy - mainly because I was walking through the drizzling rain without an umbrella, but with a huge grin on my face and dürüm kebab in hand.

Danes will be quick to tell you (once you've got them talking, that is) that any diversity you'll find in Denmark is most likely Middle Eastern... and, like many foreigners in the country, unfortunately don't have the greatest reputation. As per the usual, I've found myself flying in the face of that- as in the case of my kebab, a gift from a middle-aged Iraqi Kurdish fellow I met in my favorite pizzeria in town, Piccola Italia Pizzeria (what food words don't translate, you just have to learn. heh). ...Danes may also tell you that it is not uncommon to find Middle Eastern staff in Italian pizzerias. I pass this one walking to and from work every day and have stopped in from time to time, either for food or for shelter from the rain. Today, Amin was standing outside, smiled, and struck up a conversation. Then, randomly, was I hungry? I jokingly answered that I was always hungry- not expecting that he planned to join me in walking up to the corner, where he insisted upon presenting me with the kebab and soda before bidding adieu.

When I learned today that he was from Kurdistan, I was happy to recall two (Iranian) Kurdish friends in DC (and, FYI Denmark, they all come off as far more friendly folks right from the get-go). While the world watches the UN welcome South Sudan as its 193rd member state, with all of the celebration, hope, and concerns that come with that, let's not forget my friends the Kurds.

Two days ago, I spent my birthday visiting Helsingør and Kronborg Slot - perhaps more widely known as Elsinore, home of Hamlet (and Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke, Kenneth Branagh, and all other Hamlets of the world) - then took the ferry over to Helsingborg, Sweden, before returning to Hillerød for dinner with Lars' family. ...but any further news of that will have to wait, as my temporarily becoming a Kurdish charity case was just too great not to share. So again, three cheers for Kurdistan, and a hearty congratulations to South Sudan - plenty of wounds to be healed and obstacles to overcome, but here's hoping for the best.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Weekend in Copenhagen

Admittedly, once again, neither the inspiration nor the focus of this post is my week in the office, which can be easily summarized: planning Lars' upcoming trip to Egypt to check on a project there via attempting to contact potential people of interest and set up meetings (difficult in cultures less typically timely and orderly than the Danes); becoming more familiar both with my excellent coworkers and with the art of making an acceptable version of smørrebrød (previously discussed); and avoiding rain deluges by ducking into my favorite Italian pizzeria on the way home (favorite mainly because they smile and strike up conversations in broken English).

That said, on to Copenhagen.

For fear that I'd go crazy if I spent another day in Hillerød doing little but walking to and from work, with the occasional alteration to wander around the castle gardens or bike to the grocery store, I hopped a train late Saturday morning and spend the day exploring a bit of the city on my own.... admittedly, I think it did me good just to know I could do it- and without appealing to my map in the middle of it, which I considered real success when compared to floral-shirt-wearing,-faces-hidden-in-maps groups of tourists. Of course, my Danish phone was thieved within two minutes of getting into the central train station (and the woman disappeared too quickly for me to nab her), but I contacted Lars with my remaining American phone and he had the number blocked right away. ...So I continued on my merry way to the nearby National Museum, which, naturally, happened to be closed just for that day due to technical problems. ...So I took myself off to where the rest of Denmark's rejects go- Christianshavn and Christiania. 

For the sake of time, interest, etc, briefly put, Christiania is somewhat notorious (depends on who you're talking to) for being a commune of... well... marijuana smoking/selling hippies, if we're being terribly stereotypical- which many Danes likely will be when explaining Christiania. Do check this youtube video for more info, though, because it's a colorful and interesting story and place. Honestly, didn't wander all the way into the commune (next time!)- but I did wander through Christiansborg Slot, around the island of Christianshavn, around the Opera House, hop a boat taxi back to the main part of the city and Nyhavn, meet an Egyptian fellow while listening to a street musician, break for a mini lunch in Kongens Have (King's Garden) in front of the Rosenborg Castle, then was surprised to run into the Egyptian fellow once again as we'd stumbled upon Cope n' Waken, a wakeboard competition in the middle of the city. ...Spread that run-on sentence over a few hours, and it really was more relaxed and meandering than it might sound. Back to Hillerød in time for a late dinner, as I'm a typically poor college student/intern unwilling to sell my organs, as would be required to consistently eat out in Copenhagen.

Sunday/day 2 of Copenhagen adventures: more full and entertaining, but also more on-the-go... and more painful for my now-blistered feet. Met up with Casper (recall from the week at summer school) outside of the main train station, and talk about fantastic people-watching, especially as the station is directly across the street from Tivoli amusement park. In several hours of walking, we hit Copenhagen's main pedestrian shopping street, the Little Mermaid statue (not surprisingly, slightly overrated, and in the midst of tourist gropings), the Royal Library/"Black Diamond," Christianshavn, the Rundetaarn/Round Tower (and the view from this, one of the oldest buildings in the city and originally an observatory), past the Amalienborg Palace and the Kastellet fortress... oy, it makes me tired just listing the amount of walking we accomplished. Finished off the day with the successful discovery of an Indian restaurant for dinner and agreeing that a second meet up should be arranged before I leave the country.

Getting late here and must be at work in the morning, so my apologies for the less-than-embellished run through and what is about to be a somewhat speedy conclusion and throwing in of photos (do comment with any thoughts or questions). More soon, I'm sure, as I have plans to head towards Helsingør and Kronborg Castle (think Hamlet/Elsinore) tomorrow evening, and a friend from home is flying in on Saturday to spend a few days in the land of Kierkegaard before her return to the States.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Sometimes you just have to laugh. Believe me.

One thing I forgot to mention in that last post: always keep a sense of humor on hand, especially when traveling.

First reminder of this for the past week: Arrived at Kalundborg train station last Saturday and was confronted with a restroom that required payment (just 2 kroner, if I remember correctly). I hesitated, reassured myself that I knew what I was doing, and inserted the requested coin. Sure, the door successfully opened - but, in doing so, revealed a somewhat overweight middle aged fellow already making use of the room.... ahem. Yeah. My face turned bright red as he started cracking up to himself, still standing there and looking over at me, and a woman walking by joined the laughter and reassured me that I had done exactly as I was supposed to - he'd either snuck in without paying or simply failed to lock he door. ...Welcome to Kalundborg! Oy... I managed to work out how to close the door again (thank goodness), he laughed and patted me on the shoulder as he was leaving, and I double checked the lock after reattempting my original efforts. Phew.

Oddly, it was exactly a week later, upon my return to Hillerød on Saturday evening, that I was again reminded of the necessity of keeping up a sense of humor, this time stepping it up a notch to pull in a near run-in with the local police. Yep, I kid you not. In an attempt to lighten my baggage before walking the half hour back to my room from the train station, I stopped at the office en route with the plan of dropping off Lars' sleeping bag (which I'd borrowed for the week, though never used). Successfully used one key to get into the building and another to open the office, then promptly forgot the PIN code for the alarm system, of course setting off a terribly loud siren throughout the office as less-than-ladylike words joined the noise now infiltrating the previously silent room. 

When you've spent a week running on 5-6 hours of sleep per night and have just arrived from a somewhat lengthy train trip, the last thing you want is to be setting off an alarm system in a foreign country on Saturday night. Called pretty much everyone from the office and Lars' daughter for good measure, leaving somewhat-less-frantic-but-still-concerned voice mails for each when no one answered, and began apologizing profusely when Lars ultimately appeared on the scene, having received a call from the alarm company. He reassured the silly American girl, turned off the alarm, and called the company to call off the police, who were (theoretically) en route at the time. (Even in the midst of slight panic, I couldn't help but wonder at the use of having an alarm system when no one appeared to be reacting. heh) We laughed it off, and I received both a ride home and an invitation to brunch the following morning. ...Success, though not as I'd have planned.

Moral of the story: don't take yourself too seriously, and always lock the door behind you when you enter a restroom.

"Sommerskolen" in Kalundborg

Every once in a while, I have a moment of "how on earth did I end up here" - sort of an out-of-body experience in which I step back, look at myself, and shake my head with a chuckle or slightly bemused smile.... like speeding through northern Virginia with a Cuban friend, his Iranian roommate, and Kurdish music blasting in the background, or wandering around a Ghanaian village with a guy named Dotsi before dancing with an elderly woman at a funeral. 

This past week, there were at least three such moments: walking from the Kalundborg train station to Synscenter Refsnæs, sleeping bag in hand, knowing only that I'd be working with blind kids for a week in a place where I knew 0 people and two or three words of the local language; walking through Kalundborg again a few days later, this time with my arm gripped by two completely blind teenage boys singing commercial tunes in Danish; and, exactly a week after that first moment, overlooking foggy fields and horses from a house in Jyderup before sitting down to tea and cake with a fellow camp worker and his mother. As those three moments suggest, there's plenty I could say about this past week - and though it was most definitely a "how did I get here" kind of thing, it was an experience I wouldn't trade for anything.

Being that I was, of course, at camp for the entire week, Saturday afternoon to Saturday afternoon - and busy for the vast majority of that time, often up until 1 or 2am then waking early enough to work on breakfast at 8am - the details of the week, honestly, either aren't significant or aren't relevant enough to require a listing of them here. In brief, the camp workers/counselors set up and partied on Saturday, the kids arrived Sunday afternoon and enjoyed a week of activities, swimming, walking into town, putting on a mini festival, and really just being together, before all departed the following Saturday. I and 4 others worked with the older of the two groups of blind children, the rest being partially sighted- 27 blind, and over 100 total. The kids in my group, aged between 12 and 16, were fantastic- incredibly polite, intelligent, friendly, and some with great English (which I greatly appreciated). As I said, though, the details of the week are not the aim of this post, so you'll have to trust that I kept myself busy with helping prepare and serve meals, organizing activities and helping the kids with pretty much anything they needed, etc etc, or comment/email if you're terribly interested, which is always welcomed. 

It seems as though working with the blind can be very much about the details- watch for potential obstacles, uneven sidewalks, general accessibility- but getting to know the kids themselves is often more about pulling you into the larger picture. It's mind boggling to realize how much we take for granted the ability to see and its effect on our lives - where we can go, what and how we do basic things like eating and moving around, who we befriend, how we learn and communicate, conversation (a great landscape view I couldn't share with them, painting, etc), even the words we choose ("let's see if..." "it looks like..."). And it's even more awe inspiring to see young teenagers living with such a challenge, and doing it brilliantly. Try listening to a blind teenage girl singing "I Dreamed a Dream" as she helps prepare dinner, or a pair of them (Cathrine and Nina) singing solos and a duet from various Broadway musicals, like Les Mis's "A Little Fall of Rain." I've got goosebumps just thinking about it. But most of all, they were there just to be together, in the company of people who understood what they faced but could not see on a daily basis- kids who had little in common beyond their visual impairment, but because of it then had so much in common. As the last sentence of the "Sommerskolesangen" chorus wisely proclaimed, "Stedet hvor det gør en forskel, ja om netop du er der eller ej" - roughly translated, "the place that makes a difference, whether you're there or not."

Then, as much as I loved seeing the kids having a good time and getting to know them and see the world through their eyes (see what I mean? ...and there it is again.), what I likely enjoyed even more was heading out each evening to join other camp counselors at a bonfire once our charges were safely in their tents. Blankets, junk food, coffee, and alcohol all made their way to the fire as we sat around as late as 1 or 2am chatting, regardless of the weather. Having the opportunity to truly talk with and connect to people outside of my coworkers in Hillerød was a very large breath of fresh air, especially after eating dinners with my fellow group leaders, who, though very friendly, were older and less than inclined to speak English unless necessary. Having pulled me into conversation on our first night there, one or two in particular won me over immediately, and any free time was spent circling the school grounds and joining them when possible. Stumbling across a kindred spirit is always an uplifting sort of recharge, and often sustained me through the week when my brain was ready to burst under the weary nature of going through much of the day as though a deaf mute, unable to understand or reply to the vast majority of what I heard. thank goodness for the much-needed revitalization, and may Tiny Tim's blessings rain down upon the kindred spirit(s) in question. Again, an experience I wouldn't trade for anything.

Martin made the mistake of admitting to me that he didn't really know the macarena... so I pushed him into it when the song was replayed (thus the blur factor here). Note that the instructor, then, is the one on the right. :) Setting: dance party post-festival on Thursday night. Quite the scene, to say the least.

Casper leads Rune, one of the boys from my group, in a pack of tandem bicycles heading up the annual parade into Kalundborg. Both Casper and Martin inadvertently won points in my book for superhuman levels of patience, knowing their bike partners as I did. Further evidence of the sheer awesomeness of my coworkers for the week.

*and an update to the Facebook album, publicly available here.